Bangladesh should keep up pressure on Rohingya repatriation

Bangladesh should keep raising the Rohingya issue in all international forums. It should continue its efforts in various diplomatic arenas to exert more international pressure on Myanmar for a quick Rohingya repatriation, write MD Sakib Hossain & Kawsar Uddin Mahmud for South Asia Monitor


After repeatedly opposing the result of the November general election over the past few months, the armed forces in Myanmar overthrew the government, led by National League for Democracy (NLD). The recent military coup in Myanmar is posing a great threat to Rohingya repatriation, which has been a burning issue for Bangladesh for years.

Back in the year 2017, Rohingya, a religious and ethnic minority group of Myanmar, crossed the border and took shelter in Bangladesh in large numbers because of the genocide that took place in the Rakhine province.

Rohingya repatriation

Observers and civil society are worried about the future of Rohingya repatriation under the military government of Myanmar. Recent events in Myanmar are not  unprecedented. Since the independence of Myanmar in 1948 from British rule, the country has experienced military rule over the decades. Direct military rule started in 1962 and in 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved, following a 2010 general election. A civilian government was formed.

Although only 25 percent of seats in parliament were granted to the military, it was playing the supreme role in the government, and the army held an effective veto over constitutional changes, which required the support of three-quarters of parliamentarians.

Under the elected government, the popularity of the army had only increased, as it was perceived to be both more democratically legitimate (on the surface) and attentive to the ethnocentric chauvinism that underpinned the continual state patronized persecution of the Rohingya population. This is similar to what happened in Germany after World War I, the Weimar Republic, a government led by civilian leaders. The Weimar Republic failed because it lost popularity due to the constraints created by the military. 
The Rohingya population under military rule never enjoyed full freedom in Myanmar. This minority group has been suffering from state-driven persecution from the very beginning. At the moment, more than one million Rohingya people are living in camps inside Bangladesh. It is noteworthy that Rohingya people were persecuted by the military when a democratic government led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was in power. Political analysts are assuming a possibility of repatriation under the junta government pointing out those two major Rohingya repatriations took place in the 1970s and the 1990s under a military government.

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed, professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, believes that the coup in Myanmar won't hamper the repatriation. "The repatriation agreement was made between two countries, not between two individuals. So, despite any change in the government, a country is bound by the terms of such an agreement,” Dr. Imtiaz said.

The military takeover has received wide condemnation. New Zealand suspended all ties with Myanmar. The US President Joe Biden condemned the military’s takeover from the civilian-led government denoting it as a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law and have threatened sanctions.  

As a democratic country, Bangladesh always endorsed the democratic representative of Myanmar. During the 2006 imprisonment of Suu Kyi, more than 500 Bangladeshi politicians and high officials delivered a petition in her support and protested against the imprisonment of her party’s top leaders. Even after the victory of the Bangladesh Awami League in the 2008 election, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina wholeheartedly reiterated and advocated Myanmar’s pro-democracy struggle persuasively and influentially. But the real face of Suu Kyi came out when she failed to speak out over violence against the Rohingyas. Despite the raging ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Rakhine state over the years, Suu Kyi didn’t utter a word of condemnation – ensuring Myanmar’s democracy icon’s fall from grace. 

Bangladesh - which is bearing the burden of 1.1 million Rohingya refugees - is going through a diplomatic crisis with Myanmar over the last five years. Bangladesh had sought the international community to place concentrated financial sanctions on Myanmar, even as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has failed to find a solution to this refugee crisis with permanent members such as China and Russia have been using their veto powers to stop the UNSC from discussing the issue. Despite the fact that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has termed it genocide and asked relevant authorities to investigate the matter, the international community has treated the Rohingya issue as nothing but politics and not a humanitarian crisis.

Geopolitical advantage of Myanmar

Myanmar is located at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. It has increasingly become a battleground for influence between the US and China, two powerful countries, for whom politics and interests play a larger role. From this perspective, China would never go against the Myanmar junta as it gets enormous support from Tatmadaw (the official name of the Myanmar armed forces). It is very crucial for China to avoid the Strait of Malacca in case of any conflict. This geopolitical advantage of Myanmar in the Asia-Pacific region has brought its advantages, and China, which has always supported the junta, will never miss this opportunity to expand its naval power in the South China Sea. Keeping that in mind, it's no wonder that China has not denounced the military overthrowing the elected government.

Bangladesh-China economic relations have got stronger over the past years, but Beijing may ditch Dhaka in upholding its interest in Myanmar, which is immense.

What next on Rohingya repatriation

Now, it has become very difficult for Bangladesh to deal with a military government to discuss the Rohingya repatriation.

For Bangladesh, focusing on the ‘protracted refugee situations or warehoused refugees’ might have an adverse impact on its social, economic, and political stability. And if the Rohingya refugees become ultimate ‘forgotten refugees’ then this South Asian developing country could sink into a greater social and political instability than what happened with the Biharis – ethnic Urdu speakers who largely maintained a pro-Pakistan stance - in 1972 when they faced widespread discrimination. 

It is true that the military government has initiated repatriations in the past, but in this situation maximum pressure from the international community is necessary, and this should not be delayed. The same repatriation process could happen now if the military junta wants to ease some international pressure by taking back the refugees. 

Bangladesh should keep raising the Rohingya issue in all international forums. It should continue its efforts in various diplomatic arenas to exert more international pressure on Myanmar for a quick Rohingya repatriation. The Gambia sued Myanmar for Rohingya persecution in ICJ; Bangladesh should also keep an eye on this too. It is tough to say that the repatriation will take place during this military regime based on the last two repatriations, but this matter should be raised and pressure should be built both at the national and international level.

(The writers are students at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views are personal)

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